Perversion (Metapsychological Approach)

views updated Jun 27 2018


The concept of perversion is a recent one, though the word has been in use since the beginning of the third century, when it meant "to invert" or "to make something go wrong." Among Christians, it means "to corrupt, distort (minds)." Literary scholars use it to mean "to falsify a text." The term developed and from the second half of the nineteenth century it entered everyday language, particularly in its sexual sense.

The Graeco-Roman world does not have a concept of perversion, whereas the Christian world considers sexuality in general as a sin. Curiously, the reference to alternative sexual practices and sexual practice without a reproductive purpose within psychiatry served to liberate sexuality from religion.

Perverse phenomena were beginning to be investigated in the clinical medicine of Freud's time; Krafft-Ebing, in Germany, and Havelock Ellis, in England, were Freud's precursors in this area. Freud, however, was the first to indicate the polymorphous perverse constitution of the child, breaking with the cherubic vision of the child that had prevailed until then and creating huge scandal. Freud's revolution introduced a metapsychological approach to perversion; that is, an approach that comprises economic, topographical, and dynamic views of perverse practice and which does not separate it from normal sexual life. In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud writes: "Everyday experience has shown that most of these extensions, or at any rate the less severe of them, are constituents which are rarely absent from the sexual life of healthy people, and are judged by them no differently from other intimate events. If circumstances favour such an occurrence, normal people too can substitute a perversion of this kind for the normal sexual aim for quite a time, or can find place for the one alongside the other. No healthy person, it appears, can fail to make some addition that might be called perverse to the normal sexual aim; and the universality of this finding is in itself enough to show how inappropriate it is to use the word perversion as a term of reproach" (1905d, p. 160).

The case that Freud defines as "severe" is when a "perversion, instead of merely appearing alongside the normal sexual aim and object, and only when circumstances are unfavourable to them and favourable to it if, instead of this, it ousts them completely and takes their place in all circumstancesif, in short, a perversion has the characteristics of exclusiveness and fixation then we shall usually be justified in regarding it as a pathological symptom." He concludes: "This gives us a hint that perhaps the sexual instinct itself may be no simple thing, but put together from components which have come apart again in the perversions" (1905d, pp. 161-162).

Our interest now concerns these different components of sexual life, which may have originated from the erogenous zones but consist of something more than these. Later, in the same work, Freud writes: "It must, however, be admitted that infantile sexual life, in spite of the preponderating dominance of erotogenic zones, exhibits components which from the very first involve other people as sexual objects. Such are the instincts of scopophilia, exhibitionism and cruelty, which appear in a sense independently of erotogenic zones; these instincts do not enter into intimate relations with genital life until later, but are already to be observed in childhood as independent impulses, distinct in the first instance from erotogenic sexual activity" (1905d, pp. 191-192).

Accordingly, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, and masochism are the first "partial drives." Freud considered that it is these "partial drives" that require the presence of other people as sexual objects from the outset. Thus, a degree of distance is established between the sexual nature of the object and its capacity to satisfy the needs connected with the erogenous zones. Furthermore, because they require the integration of "other people," exhibitionism and voyeurism and sadism and masochism form the basis of every identification and therefore of the formation of the ego. This viewpoint is far removed from the simplistic theories based on a genetic approach.

Two problems arise concerning Freud's interest in the perversions. The first relates to his interest in masochism and the second to his interest in fetishism, which are in fact the only two perversions in which he seems to take a close interest. Freud explains his interest in masochism as a perversion in the 1919 article "'A Child Is Being Beaten"' (1919e). There he outlines the different stages that give rise to the masochistic fantasy: first, "My father is beating the child" and, above all, "My father is beating the child whom I hate "; second, "I am being beaten by my father "; third, someone is beating many people, a phase that corresponds to a return to the first fantasy, now reinforced, which becomes: "My father does not love this other child, he loves only me." These fantasies correspond to residues of the oedipal elaboration and are one of the sources of the formation of the superego.

This text seems somewhat inaccessible today without a critical apparatus that takes into consideration both its connection with Anna Freud's text on "The Relation of Beating Fantasies to a Daydream" (1923) and the shared origin of both texts in Anna's analysis by her father and the presentation of this young woman as a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society in that same year. These are complicating factors for their impact in explaining masochism in general.

Freud takes up this theme again in 1924 in "The Economic Problem of Masochism," a text that is of great theoretical and metapsychological interest, specifically for its identification of the death drive as the origin of masochism. Nevertheless, this text seems both to be overshadowed by the 1919 text and to introduce a methodological bias: Freud attributes a form of masochism to women that he explains in this text that he has only ever been able to observe clinically in men. The problem seems to be that Freud never entirely accepts the existence of two sexes and that he systematically reduces "femininity" to "underdeveloped masculinity" if not to "infantility" in its masculine form.

In the article "Fetishism" (1927e), Freud bases the essence of his theories on fetishism on the voyeuristic quest for the maternal phallus, in conjunction with the fears that are concealed by this quest. He remains cautious: "But I do not maintain that it is invariably possible to discover with certainty how the fetish was determined" (1927e, p. 155). However, his theoretical association leads him to connect the formation of the fetish with the dead father on the one hand and with the splitting of the ego on the other and to the theories that he had already developed at the time concerning the differences and similarities between neurosis and psychosis.

The article poses some problems. Freud conflates "phallus" and "penis," making no distinction between the terms. The "maternal phallus" and "the mother's penis" are not interchangeable terms. The term "phallus" designates a representation of the erect penis that dates back to the Dionysian cults of Ancient Greece. During the Roman Empire, this term was linked more to fascination but it is not reduced to the symbol of the erect penis. Everything that appeals in terms of procreative capacity is called "phallic." The erection is only one of the possible states of the penis and by far the least ordinary, but Freud does not give any reasons why the child would expect to encounter an "erect penis" in his mother. Furthermore, if Freud is referring to the procreative capacity, the association with the penis is superfluous since the mother is just much a parent as the father.

Further, Freud rejects the concept of "scotomization" that was put forward by René Laforgue, and thus rejects his own concept of Verwerfung (foreclosure or repudiation), whereas Laforgue's proposition would have established a link between the perversions and the psychoses in accordance with Freud's theories concerning the definite presence of perverse fantasies in the psychoses as well as in the neuroses. If the neuroses are the negative of perversions, do perversions constitute their "positive" as in relation to the psychoses? Furthermore, it seems possible that clinical experience led Freud to abandon the long-established differences between neurosis and psychosis in favor of that new considerations he expounds in this text on fetishism.

Finally, at the dawn of the third millennium, the theory that designates the clitoris as "the normal prototype of inferior organs," the "woman's real small penis" (1927e, p. 157), is considered somewhat problematic. Freud had difficultyfully recognizing the existence of the two different sexes, and his formulation here considers the woman as deprived of a penis. In this respect, the theory is itself a fetishistic one.

It seems that on the subject of perversions psychoanalysis may not have progressed very far since Freud, but from 1967, structuralism questioned the degree of variation between neurotic, psychotic, and perverse "structures." The authors of Le Désir et la perversion (Aulagnier-Spairani, P. et al., 1967), several French psychoanalytic clinicians, mainly close to Jacques Lacan, claim to isolate perversion as an entirely separate entity that has no obvious connection with other mental or sexual disorders. Guy Rosolato forwards a "study of the sexual perversions based on fetishism" that essentially adheres to Freud's framework. However, the dead ancestor becomes the fantasy of the murder of the father, and castration anxiety, attributed only to male individuals, forms the basis for the theory of a general perversion in women. The second article, by Piera Aulagnier, is based on the account of a clinical case but she seems to overlook Freud's theories on the "universal bisexuality of human beings." In her view, men would never be able to understand the specific characteristics of female jouissance, nor vice versa. Jean Clavreul is interested in the perverse couple but the essentially legalistic viewpoint that he held in 1966 impedes his contribution to an understanding of sexuality, which should consist in taking complete stock of forms of human behavior without any disqualifications. François Perrier takes up the traditional discussions in France and establishes a connection between erotomania as it appears in Clérembault's first observations and Lacan's much later contributions. In its implications for clinical practice and its great sensitivity throughout, this appears to be the most important essay of the collection.

The efforts to establish a form of "structuralism" in psychoanalysis, which usually take this back to the old psychiatric nosography, have proved persistent in France. However, the claim that "the apparatus of the soul" can be reduced to "psychic structures," as in every form of psychopathology, involves a neglect of Freud's theories concerning the dynamics and economy of formations of the soul that constantly forge links between "difficulties in thinking" and particularly between the psychoses, neuroses, and perversions. Their coexistence was established by Freud from the outset of his works. Neo-sexuality does not exist in this third millennium any more than in any earlier period. On the other hand, a form of neo-morality sometimes seems to emerge, which takes a different view of the eternal forms of erotism.

Furthermore, Freud's characteristic conflation of femininity with infantility has been detrimental to the understanding of female fetishism and the perversions in general. Thus it has been claimed either that a polymorphous perverse dimension was inherent in femininity or that there could be no such thing as female perversion because women were entirely devoted to sublimation. These are extreme and romantic theories.

In the United States and, less commonly, in France, psychoanalysts have been more concerned about clinical practice and have indicated the female perversions being exercised in a commonplace way in women's relationships with children (Welldon). Exhibitionism is a further manifestation of female perversion and male voyeurism is integral to it, relating to any part of the body: men look at what women show them; women show what men want to see. The supposed "female masochism" is usually accompanied by a form of sadism and "male sadism" often abandons men to masochism. The opposed pairs of the partial drives as Freud conceived them are indissociable in clinical practice and are frequently interchangeable.

Luiz Eduardo Prado de Oliveira

See also: Perversion.


Aulagnier-Spairani, Piera, et al. (1967). Le désir et la perversion. Paris: Seuil.

Freud, Anna. (1923). The relation of beating fantasies to a daydream. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 4 89-102.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1919e). "A child is being beaten": a contribution to the study of the origin of sexual perversions. SE, 17: 175-204.

. (1924b). Neurosis and psychosis. SE, 19: 147-153.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

. (1924e). The loss of reality in neurosis and psychosis. SE, 19: 180-187.

. (1927e). Fetishism. SE, 21: 147-157.

Welldon, Estela V. (1988). Mother, Madonna, whore: The idealization and denigration of motherhood. London: Free Association Books.


views updated May 18 2018


To posit a "perverse" sexuality is to imply the existence of a "normal" variety with reference to which certain acts and object-choices are deemed deviant. In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Sigmund Freud stated that the aim of adult sexuality was to reach orgasm by means of genital penetration, but he tempered this rather normative statement by observing that "the disposition to perversions is itself of no great rarity but must form a part of what passes as the normal constitution" (p. 171).

This was the basis of Freud's celebrated formula according to which "neurosis is the negative of perversion" (pp. 165, 231). In his turnor perhaps rather his returnto Freud, Jacques Lacan followed up by underlining the importance of the absence of the father in cases of perversion, and at the same time claimed that perversion was above all attributable to the mother's putting her child in the place of the phallus (2002 [1955-56], p. 188). The pervert-to-be was thus chained to the desire/demand of the mother. It should be borne in mind, however, that Lacan was chiefly interested in the form of a "third structure" between the psychotic structure and the neurotic, so that for him perversion was a specific structural category rather than a class of sexual behavior to be set against an established norm.

It is difficult, from the psychoanalytical perspective, to frame a satisfactory definition of what, among adult sexual activities and object-choices, might constitute a symptom. Should homosexuality, for example, always be looked upon as a symptom? Or should it be viewed simply as a variation of male or female sexuality? Psychoanalysts are sharply divided on this clinical question.

First of all, the polymorphous features of adult sexuality hardly need underlining. Countless patients, whether heterosexual or homosexual, describe an infinite variety of erotic scenarios, fetish objects, masquerades, sadomasochistic games, and so on, which constitute private areas in their love lives, and which they experience neither as compulsive nor as indispensable to their sexual gratification.

Since every psychological symptom constitutes an attempt at self-cure intended to spare the sufferer painful mental conflict, this may be said equally of symptomatic sexuality (inasmuch as we are able to define it). Such a constructive approach to the meaning and aim of sexual symptoms, and of the reason for their formation, invariably leads to the conclusion that they embody infantile solutions to the confusions and anxieties attending sexual difference and sexual identity. The need to reinvent the sexual act often turns out to be closely tied to the parents' unconscious, or to silent messages or deceptive communications from the parents concerning sexual identity, adult sexuality, and notions of "feminine" and "masculine."

If some patients can achieve sexual satisfaction only by recourse to fetishistic, sadomasochistic, or other scenarios, the analyst might well wish that their sex life were less constrained, less subject to rigid conditions; yet if such erotic rituals are indeed for them the sine qua non of sexual relations, there is no justification for wanting these patients to abandon their erotic practices, whether or not other people consider them perverse.

As for the primal scene and the troubling fantasies to which it is apt to give rise, these tendapart from their genital aspects and the phallic-oedipal conflicts they arouse well before the oedipal crisis properto bear the stamp of the pregenital: the fantasies in question feature devoration, or erotic and sadistic exchanges of an anal or fecal kind. When such fantasies predominate, they often fail to be integrated into genital eroticism and thus lead to so-called perverse sexual solutions.

Even more inhibiting than fantasies originating in the pregenital psychosexual stage are archaic fantasies involving vampirism, implosion, and fears of the loss of identity or of the sense of the boundaries of the body. When such fantasies, characteristic of early infancy, play a predominant part in the mental reality of adult individuals, sexual and love relationships are liable to be experienced as a threat of castration, annihilation, or death.

In order to achieve a gratifying sexual or love life, individuals inhabited by such terrifying fantasies find themselves obliged by the force of their unconscious to invent means whereby their castration anxiety and fear of annihilationto which may be added feelings of confusion as to sexual identity, of emptiness, and of inner deathcan be transformed into eroticized games. As an absolute prerequisite to sexual relations, adults in this situation commonly require complex theatrics: constraining conditions, disguises of all sorts, pregenital sexual behavior including the exchange of excrement, and so onall meticulously stage-managed.

Most patients who re-enact the primal scene in this way feel that their erotic acts and object-choices are conflict-free and consonant with their desires, even if other people adjudge them perverse. The specific form assumed by a person's sexual predilections becomes a clinical problem in need of solution only if it causes that person to suffer. The real question is not whether particular acts or preferences should be judged deviant, but when a given deviation should be considered a variation from adult sexuality within the context of a significant object-relationship and therefore be treated as symptomatic.

A good many authors continue to us the term "perversion" in a pejorative way, but only inasmuch as it connotes a proclivity towards evil. Thus Robert Stoller (1975) confines the use of the word, which he defines as "the erotic form of hatred," to any sexual act whereby a person seeks deliberately to hurt someone else. Joyce McDougall (1995) uses the term "neosexual" to qualify the kind of scenarios described above and suggests that "perverse" be applied exclusively to specific relations, notably sexual relations, imposed by one individual on another who does not consent thereto (as for instance a child or a mentally disturbed person): in other words, sexual relationships in which one of the partners is utterly indifferent to the vulnerability or the desire of the other. It is worth noting that these same acts belong more often than not to the class of behavior that is condemned by the law: sexual abuse of minors, rape, exhibitionism, and so forth. The sexual activity of consenting adults, whether or not it is considered deviant with respect to supposed norms, tends not to be treated as illegal.

In short, where neosexual practices do no harm to either partner, nor seem to display a relentless compulsiveness of which the subject him or herself complains, the analyst has no cause to wish another erotic perspective upon the patient. It should be remembered that neosexualities serve not only to repair breaches in the sense of sexual and subjective identity but also, unconsciously, to protect their internal objects from the subject's hate and destructiveness, which derive in part from the unworked-out oral and anal impulses characteristic of incorporative infantile love. In the course of an analysis, the meaning of the love relationships of sexual innovators is revealed. It transpires in fact that their "choices" represent the best solution that the sometime child was able to find in response to messages from the parents. The feeling of choice is nonexistent, whether the individual is heterosexual, homosexual, autosexual, and/or neosexual.

Thanks to the uncovering of neosexual scenarios, what had been nonsensical becomes significant and meaningful, and a feeling of vitality prevails, at least momentarily, over inner death. These same problems might otherwise have produced graver outcomes of a psychotic or psychopathological order. Despite the often constraining conditions imposed by patients' compulsions and anxiety, which so often define the repertoire of sexual deviations, the underlying self-curative intent in face of conflicts of a neurotic or psychotic kind means that Thanatos is bound and that Eros triumphs over death.

Joyce McDougall

See also: Bisexuality; Borderline conditions; "Claims of Psycho-Analysis to Scientific Interest"; Exhibitionism; Fetishism; Idealization; Imposter; Repetition; Sadomasochism; Signifier; Splitting; Splitting of the ego; Transgression; Voyeurism.


Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-234.

Lacan, Jacques. (2002 [1955-56]). On a question prior to any possible treatment of psychosis. InÉcrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: Norton.

McDougall, Joyce. (1995). The many faces of Eros: A psychoanalytic exploration of human sexuality. New York: W.W. Norton.

Stoller, Robert. (1975). Perversion: The erotic form of hatred. New York: Pantheon.

Further Reading

Bach, Sheldon. (1994). The language of perversion and the language of love. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Goldberg, Arnold. (1995). The problem of perversion. The view from self psychology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kernberg, Otto F. (1991). Sadomasochism, sexual excitement, and perversion. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39, 333-362.


views updated Jun 08 2018

perversion Sexual perversion is usually implicitly assumed to mean some kind of unnatural, abnormal form of sexual behaviour. As such, its meaning is particularly fluid, depending on the position of the person using it, and their assumptions about the natural and the normal. While there would probably be a fairly broad consensus in favour of declaring necrophiliac cannibalism to be a perversion, very few forms of sexual practice have not been defined by someone, somewhere, as perversion.

Act versus object

Perversity can be broken down into two categories: perverse acts and perverse objects. Acts which involve some other use of the genitals beyond the insertion of the penis into the vagina followed by ejaculation have often been categorized as perversions. Masturbation, either mutual or solitary, comes into this category, as does oral sex. The use of contraception to thwart the reproductive purpose of intercourse has also been defined as perverted. It might be supposed that the one act which can always be defined as the normal, natural thing is sexual intercourse intended for the begetting of children (or at least, without the deliberate interposition of means to prevent this happening) between two persons of opposite sexes married to one another. At least in the abstract this is the case, but when it comes down to the practical, even the most reproductively intentioned married couple may be engaging in something which someone could define as perversion. The very position which one society regards as almost too natural even to think about may be regarded by another as an obscene variation calculated to inflame sensuality.

Acts which may in themselves be regarded as either perverse or bordering upon perversity may, however, be considered permissible if they conduce to better reproductive sex between married couples. Catholic confessional manuals, and twentieth century works on marriage advice, have licensed practices such as clitoral titillation or oral sex, or variations in sexual position, provided these were performed with the intention of rendering intercourse either more likely to be fertile, or (in the latter example) to induce better bonding between the couple thus improving the stability of the institution of marriage. The manifesto for such attitudes was proclaimed by the Dutch gynaecologist Theodor Van de Velde in his Ideal Marriage (1926): ‘Ideal Marriage permits normal, physiological activities the fullest scope, in all desirable and delectable ways’, while banishing ‘All that is morbid, all that is perverse’. The ‘full range of contact and connection between human beings, for sexual intercourse’ was clearly marked as pertaining ‘exclusively to normal intercourse between opposite sexes’. Thus Van de Velde was able to provide detailed instructions for preliminary ‘love-play’ and for variant positions suitable for different occasions, while firmly closing the door on ‘the Hell-gate of the Realm of Sexual Perversions’.

While this does open up the possibility of acts being (perversely) indulged in for their own sake as a means of selfish gratification rather than the enhancement of a relationship, it also moves the question from the issue of the acts to that of the object. Perversity thus becomes not merely a matter of using the genitals in a ‘wrong’ way, but also of experiencing sexual feelings towards some object considered to be unnatural: for example, the body of an individual of the same gender, an animal, or some item of apparel, which are, under the rubric of ‘the natural’, not supposed to be endowed with erotic allure. However, even this became an area open to finesse: with the rise of the notion of ‘congenital inversion’ (an inborn homosexual tendency), sexologists made a distinction between ‘inverted sexual practices’ innately normal to those engaging in them, and ‘perversions’ indulged in for sensual variety by those who had no such excuse. Some cultures permit certain forms of homosexual interaction, and even ritualize these to some extent, while not having any category for homosexual relationships outside those bounds. This can be seen, for example, in societies where there is an accepted role of effeminate male homosexual, or which accept age-differentiated relationships between men and adolescent boys with an assumed pedagogic purpose. Behaviour which transgresses these structural norms, however, may be stigmatized.

The perverse and ‘normality’

A perhaps more ‘modern’ way of considering perversion has been to place the defining barrier around the quality of the relationship. Something which leads to a reciprocal and mutually meaningful relationship between two individuals (whatever their gender and practices) may be regarded as natural and healthy. Impersonal acts and those unlikely to result in the formation of a pair-bond are thus still assigned to the realm of the perverse. The implicit model remains, of course, heterosexual matrimony.

Early sexologists both created and tried to defuse the question of the perverse by differentiating practices which were a distortion or a corruption of the sexual instinct from those which were (however deplorable), an exaggeration of ‘natural’ tendencies. This latter category could include manifestations of excessive sexual desire, exhibitionism and voyeurism, and the milder forms of fetishism and sadomasochism (particularly where the latter fitted received notions of male aggression and female passivity). However, as pioneer British sexologist Havelock Ellis pointed out, nearly all so-called perversions were capable of being interpreted as exaggerations of some tendency within ‘normal’ sexuality.

Most of the practices defined as perverse have been and are still found either exclusively or much more commonly among men. This may represent women's lack of opportunities, since, in most societies throughout history, if not confined to marriage and motherhood, their only other role has been that of prostitute, indulging male quirks of desire rather than manifesting their own. Some female ‘perversions’, such as desire for clitoral stimulation, have been quite clearly defined by male assumptions about the appropriate form of female sexual satisfaction: indeed active sexual desire in the female has been interpreted as ‘perverse’. Since discussions of sexuality have often focused on women, it is therefore interesting to note that descriptions of ‘perversion’ are more likely to deal with men.

Lesley A. Hall

See also fetishism; sadomasochism; sexual orientation.


views updated May 29 2018

503. Perversion (See also Bestiality.)

  1. bondage and domination (B & D) practices with whips, chains, etc. for sexual pleasure. [Western Cult.: Misc.]
  2. Humbert, Humbert middle-aged gentleman crisscrosses America staying in motels with 12-year-old nymphet. [Am. Lit.: Lolita ]
  3. Imp of the Perverse perversity as motive for mens actions. [Am. Lit.: Imp of the Perverse in Hart, 402]
  4. Onan Judahs son; spilled seed upon ground. [O.T.: Genesis 38: 910]
  5. Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von (18361895) author who derived pleasure from being tortured. [Aust. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 165]
  6. Sade, Marquis de (17401814) jailed for sexual crimes; wrote of sexual cruelty. [Fr. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 165]


views updated May 14 2018

per·ver·sion / pərˈvərzhən/ • n. the alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended: the perversion of Marxist theory to justify Soviet policymaking | a scandalous perversion of the law. ∎  sexual behavior or desire that is considered abnormal or unacceptable.